My brown doe eyes peered at the pale face reflecting in the large oval mirror of my beloved vanity. I instinctively reached out my petite hand for a last sentimental brush of its clean, mahogany surface, my eyes analyzing the ornate detailing in the wood encompassing the mirror I’d spent years in front of. Intricate designs swirled and etched into the central piece of my childhood bedroom—a heavy sigh escape me. I leaned back and peered over at my large, comfortable bed, precisely made as if I’d be stepping back in it today. The English Georgian four poster bed I’d spent countless nights curled inside, warm and asleep, or awake and attempting to read with the dim oil lamp still sitting cold on the adorning small table beside my bed. My eyes then laid upon the intricate velvet Chateau rug beneath my cream pumps.
“Mrs. Annalise, the carriage has arrived,” the frail Housekeeper peeked around the open door and entered, standing just near the door with her hands clasped in front of her crisp apron. Her grey hairs peeked from beneath her bonnet and I felt tears threatening behind my placid eyes.
“Thank you, Missus Dudley,” I acknowledged her and she gave me an endearing smile. She could see—she always could—and I took a few steps towards her and reached out a silk-gloved hand to rest on her hands. The woman had kept a close and dutiful eye on me as a child-- my parents loving but busy—and I admired her much for it. Although it went against my families’ desired propriety, I found it difficult none-the-less to leave without a sincere goodbye to the woman who, by all accounts, had raised me. A stray tear fell from the corner of my eye and my hand fell from hers as she moved to cup my cheeks and brush away the tear.
“Do not fret, [i My Ana], all will fall into its rightful place—[i I promise,”] she assured me and I let out a burst of held oxygen while simultaneously wrapping my arms around the shoulders of the short woman. She tensed at first, but then her gentle arms encompassed me the best she could and she patted my back. We heard footsteps then and quickly we detached. She maneuvered out of the room and as she did my mother stepped through. Her beautiful face and elegance was yet to be matched but I tried, standing up straighter with my hands gently to my sides. Her smooth skin broke momentarily as she erupted into a smile and patted my arm.
“Annalise, it is time—let us walk,” she gracefully motioned for the door and floated beside me as we passed the familiar walls of my home and my hand mindfully felt the banister as I clutched the railing and descended the stairs with her. My father stood at the steps with his hands behind his back dressed to his best in his black slacks and matching tailcoat. His sideburns also had yet to be matched—my parents were truly a match made in heaven. They stood beside each other before me and my mom genuinely appeared as if she might weep but she did not shed a tear. I wondered if this was because my departure did not affect her or if she was trying to save face and protect me. She was always such a strong and stoic woman that sometimes I could not even read her myself.
“Annalise, please do well to be respectful and poised. I know you will be attending a short finishing school in Edinburgh; you would do well to be steadfast in your studies of poise, grace, and etiquette,” he paused and looked to my mother who nodded.
“Yes, dear; the Taylor’s are a powerful and influential family in the inner-city. This engagement has been a God-sent for this family.” My mother completed my father’s sentiments and I withheld the need to groan. I carefully pushed a dark, almost raven-colored ringlet from my face and nodded solemnly.
“You [i are] aware that he did not request a dowry be paid, yes?” My father inquired and this time I allowed myself to audibly murmur. My mother shot me a shadowed, disapproving look and I glanced away for a moment. [i Of course, I know that. Why must he be so insistent?]
I knew just three months past when George had arrived at Marshrun Manor for a brief stay on business with my father. He had almost immediately inquired about my hand after he had returned home to Edinburgh and my parents were all too joyous to accept the offer. My two young siblings were still too young to think of marriage and it peeved me that I—as well as them, eventually—were objects for my family to give away but yet ‘twas only the culture I had grown understanding. I knew this day was coming; especially since I had come-out to society nearly a year before. Thankfully I had no received any suitors to my families dismay, but once the average-looking businessman from Edinburgh arrived it’s like my family had been saved.
“Remember, also, you shall be staying with their family until the wedding in one month’s time. Dutifully complete your studies and be sure to maintain your and our family’s propriety. It is dangerous for you to be living beneath the same roof; I dare say even blasphemous—but alas this is the choice we have had to make. George ensured that his family and servants had prepared a separate room for you and that you will be supervised at all times. Do not let that mouth run, I plead you,” my brows furrowed together at my father’s near insulting words but I did not need clarification; I knew what he had meant.
My sisters were outside playing and came to a stumbling stop outside the door, throwing open the door, and wrapping me in hugs at my waist. Only six-years-old and twelve, the two youngsters had much to learn about the world. It made my heart ache that they, too, would never be allowed to marry for love. [I Give it time and your heart will grow fonder,] they’d say. How true was it, though? Was my life’s sole purpose about to be to make George happy and procreate as much as possible? The thought sent fear shivering up my spine; I hadn’t even thought on the wedding night… and I did not want to. I patted the girls’ heads and the Coachman approached the now open front door to signify he was ready and the Footman had loaded my bags. I saw the Footman jump onto the back to sit on the exterior rack in the back of the carriage after securing my totes.
I stepped outside and took one last glance at the grounds from the view from our front door. My family’s country-esque home and endless grounds of grass, forest, and gardens were as far as the eye could see. We were part of a minority of high-class homeowners in Brookenshire and I had an endless love for the wilderness and the peace that it brought. The thought of entering the bleak, industrial town of Edinburgh was nothing short of heart-rending and I’d only read about it in books. I sighed heavily and approached the carriage where I could see my wooden trunks strapped to the back. He opened the door for me and extended his hand to assist me in entering the carriage. I could hear the horses impatiently kicking their hooves against the cobbled pathway. Once positioned inside I suddenly sat and swung the door back open.
“My book!” I called out and Missus Dudley skipped as best she could in her old age to the carriage to hand me the book I’d been working on the past few days. I felt her hand hold my hand for a prolonged moment and she smiled up at me again with elated eyes that quelled the storms in my heart if even just for this brief moment. “I will see you again soon,” I promised her. She nodded and let go, taking a few steps back and stopping short. A few lengths behind her I looked up to see my two siblings with tears in their eyes and my mother reaching around to pat them on their shoulders, my father beside them stoically watching my departure. I heard the Coachman whip the reins then and the carriage lurched forward. Tears began to sting and prickle now, finally alone to my thoughts as my fond childhood home grew smaller as each moment passed by. I eventually had to tear my face away to look down at my fidgeting hands where I vigorously played with the satin silk green fabric of my travelling dress. I rested my head back on the cushioned and pleated silk interior of the carriage and closed my eyes. [i Please Lord, let me be happy.]
[center ____ ]
The day of the ball had arrived and I was brimming with excitement as well as apprehension. This would have been a wonderful and far more exhilarating time if it weren’t for the fact that I was betrothed and the thought was hard to peel off my mind. I hoped that tonight would still bring fun and laughter and shed some positivity on this dreary existence I was about to commit to for the rest of my life. The other girls I had made friends with at the finishing school I attended in the bustling city of Edinburgh were starry-eyed with hopes of waves of handsome men and the potential for a husband. A few were already engaged like myself, but most viewed this night as the dance that would change their lives. I was woven by the same cloth so I understood their excitement even if I was the rogue who felt far better free from commitment and responsibility.
Many of them had ornately, beautifully hand-crafted dresses and George had allowed me the same. I chose a beautiful satin sky-blue dress with silver detailing and white elbow high white gloves. The servants at Mansfield House, the Taylor’s family home in Edinburgh, worked diligently and I had befriended a couple of them—in secret, of course. Emelia was a blue-eyed blonde with a pretty round, pale face and peach lips. She could have been royalty had it not been for the misgivings of her birthname. It peeved me and I longed for a society in which everyone mattered and could choose to be in any class they liked. How silly to base such a thing on maiden names.
Emelia worked on my messy long raven-hair, coiling it up and pinning it into place. She was cheery and excited for me; she was barely 19-years-old, a contrast to my cynical 24-year-old mind.
“Are you excited, my lady?” She asked as she continued to arrange my hair.
“Of course—I suppose. I just wish I could attend—[i alone.”] I whispered the last word and Emelia nodded. At first, I had been fearful to be honest with Emelia. But once it was explained to me that she would become my personal servant and she explained her role and her loyalty to me, I had finally opened up to her. She was easy to talk to, someone I’d consider a genuine friend if not for the hierarchal society I lived in.
“I understand, my lady, but what can we do?” She sighed with me, “He’s not so bad, the Mister, just give him a chance—it takes him a while to be himself. He hardly is even with the family and us servants, I dare even say himself,” she giggled then and I joined her. She was right—I needed to be less judgmental—but he just made me feel so uneasy and uncomfortable. He was awkward to talk to and he wasn’t exactly the most handsome either. I had so many things to say and to do and I felt stifled by his presence; like I wasn’t to speak or he had not time. I needed someone to challenge me; to trust in my intelligence; to not treat me like just a woman but an individual. I sighed audibly and Emelia patted my shoulder before clipping on my pearl earrings and necklace. We quickly worked to tighten up the gown around me, the blue satin falling effortlessly. My hand ran over the smooth surface, the bodice tightening just beneath my breasts. The height of fashion now, something always moving and changing. My hair was up tightly as well, the few intricately and specifically placed curls framing my face. She had dusted me with powder, darkened my brows and lashes, and placed a pink rouge on my cheeks, the finishing touch was pink-red lip-stain. I took a finishing look in the mirror before thanking Emilia.
“One day you will be able to participate in the festivities—I swear it!” I playfully said to her and she blushed, “Also, again, Emelia, please call me Ana when we’re in private, I’d really prefer it but I know they wouldn’t,” I motioned to the wall facing the main living area where the family most certainly was awaiting my descent from the stairs to leave. Emelia nodded to me before opening the door and I strode out in my cream-colored pumps, holding my dress closely to my knees as I descended the stairs. George Taylor awaited me at the bottom and I dare say I think I saw him smile but when I met him at the stairs and took his arm, he coughed obnoxiously without a word while guiding us out the door. The carriage awaited us, the impatient white steeds again clicking their hooves. I wanted to ride them freely, but in town there was not that ability and my heart lurched again as I remember the feeling of galloping through the land at Mansfield Manor—[i home.]
I felt strange on his arm and couldn’t let go of it faster when we arrived at the Crescent Ball. Bodies lined the dance hall where synchronized dancing took place within the center. George was apprehensive to let me go but my friends approached me and I disappeared with them with a last glance in his direction. He looked as if he wanted to say something but instead he walked toward a friend of his and that was it. I hoped he wouldn’t ask to dance but I was slowly coming to terms with the fact that I possibly had no choice but to start forcing myself into these awkward positions. It needed to happen because I was definitely marrying this man, one-way-or-another, no matter how I felt.
I half-listened to the group coo around me, pointing out attractive men around the room as they danced or strode by and I tried to smile but my mind was lost. That was until I spotted a man across the room—nearly ethereal, I had an insatiable need to grow closer, a morbid curiosity washing over me. He was mysterious, even as he stood with hooded eyes beside another man, there was something peculiar about him.
“Who is that man?” I questioned and the girls looked to me with mouths agape.
“We told you, we were just talking about it Annalise, were you not listening?” I gave them an awkward smile and small shrug and they rolled their eyes but repeated themselves.
“That’s Joseph Laphontes. The family moved here a few years ago but they don’t talk to people often and keep the themselves. I’m not even quite sure what they do, my father doesn’t either. But they’re pretty wealthy; even more so than that, though, they all look otherworldly. I’ve only met a few Lafontes, but they’re all really beautiful. Of course, Joseph is the most. Every girl in this room would like to be chosen by him, yet he has not picked a lady. Talk of the town, though, is that he’s looking—tonight.” Sarah turned into Isabelle and they began to giggle, attempting to look inconspicuous. My eyes hadn’t lost his face from across the room, though, and I mentally hoped that maybe—just maybe—he’d ask me to dance.